Saturday, 7 April 2018

What makes a library great? by Dawn Finch

Sarah McIntyre's wonderful library campaign poster

As a library campaigner I have often used this blog to talk about libraries and how important they are to our communities and to society as a whole. Be patient, because this is another one. I’ve shared many stories with you, and the writing community has been endlessly supportive. You’ve marched alongside librarians, written about libraries and you’ve worked hard to slow the demise of our library service.

When we talk about libraries we often drift into talking about the libraries we remember as a child. We talk in rosy and nostalgic terms about how important those libraries were, and how they shaped us. One thing we often find hard to quantify is what exactly it was that made that library great. I can tell you – it was the people who worked there. Without them it would just have been a room with books in. They were the ones filling the shelves with the books that they knew their communities wanted, and needed. They were the ones who kept the place warm, and tidy, and welcoming. They were the ones with the information at their fingertips, and the ones who knew how to find the answers to everything. They knew what you needed even when you weren’t sure yourself. The library was never just a building at the end of the high street filled with books – it was a library because of the professionals who worked there.

This is why I ask you now to think back and remember all of those library workers who made your library so special. These are the workers who have never been under more pressure, and whose jobs have never been at greater risk. If any other sector was haemorrhaging staff at the rate we are losing library workers there would be public outcry. In the struggle to save libraries we have perhaps lost sight of the fact that it was never just the buildings, the books, or chairs, or photocopiers, or computers that made libraries great – it was the people who held it all together; the library workers. The librarians and library assistants who kept everything going and served the unique needs of their communities in the face of job losses and salary cuts and enormous pressure. They kept going.

So I ask you all a favour – please talk about the library workers who made your library so important because if we don’t all talk about what they did then it is easy to dismiss just how vital they are. These are the people who are trusted, reliable, knowledgeable and accountable. Tell the world how much they matter. Tell them about the librarian who laid her hand over the shaking hand of a woman in trouble and slipped her a leaflet to get help, and took time to keep an eye on her over months, and years. Tell them about the librarian who allowed a teenager to take extra books so that he could pass his exams, and saved a seat near the radiator so he could study away from his chaotic home. Tell them about the mobile librarian who kept lonely customers chatting knowing that they wouldn’t talk to another human being until the library returned the following week. Tell them about the library worker who dropped by on that elderly man who hadn’t made it into the library that week. Tell them about the library worker who found you out of print books so you could finish your open learning degree while you were still working and couldn’t afford even the reservation cost of the books you needed. Tell them about the library workers who turn a blind eye when that guy nods off behind a newspaper again because they know he doesn’t want to go home and sit alone since his wife passed away. Tell them about the school librarian who lets the lonely and the bullied come and hang out in the library every day so they feel happy coming into school and can get through each day. Tell them about the library worker who found you books for your travels, and for your new home, and for your upcoming marriage, and for your divorce, and for your legal struggles, and for your mental health issues, and for your medical problems. the one who found you books and information for the good times, and the crushingly bad ones, and all without judgement and always protecting your privacy and respecting your needs.

This is just a tiny snapshot of the things that library workers do, and I know because these are just a few of the things that I’ve done. Just a tiny window into our lives. There are many things that I can’t say here because, even though I no longer work at the frontline, I still respect and honour the privacy of the people I served and I will never share their stories. I don’t want praise; my campaign here is entirely selfish. I want to be absolutely sure that when I need this, or when the people I love need this, there is someone there for me. When I need someone to help me, I want to know I can go to a library and find a library worker who is a trained and experienced professional who has a code of conduct and a set of ethical principles – and I want them to be paid for this.

So let’s all keep talking about the library workers who made our libraries special, and who made them great. In 2016 a BBC survey estimated 8,000 library workers had lost their jobs, now the figure is estimated to be closer to 10,000. We can’t afford to lose any more. We couldn’t afford to lose them. When you fight to save a library – make it absolutely clear that includes the people who devote their lives to working in and for them. Without library workers, it’s just a room with books in.


And most importantly….

Dawn Finch is a children's librarian, author and library campaigner. Trustee of CILIP and member of the Society of Authors' Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee


Penny Dolan said...

Well said, Dawn. So many quiet acts of help, knowledge and kindness that were - and still are - mostly invisible to the busy in-and-out borrowers.

Savita Kalhan said...

I run a teen library reading group, which would not be possible without the support of the librarians at Finchley Church End Library - Steve Saunders, Natalie Pavlou, and all the other great staff there. Sometimes they really struggle finding the books I've asked for, but they go to the extra effort of sourcing them from all the libraries in Barnet. They need a bigger budget for children's books!

Anne Booth said...

It is truly terrible to read how many librarians have lost their jobs. This is a very important campaign.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Here, it’s the school libraries that are in danger, not the local libraries. I have just retired and all the things I did until last year are gone, because I haven’t been replaced and my library technician is on her own and being run into the ground. The library isn’t even open at lunchtime any more. I tried to find people who could do some of the things I did, among the teaching staff, and people said yes, of course, but haven’t done it. No more book club. No more Premier’s Reading Challenge. No more excursions to writers festivals. Nowhere for kids to go at lunchtime or borrow books, even, though some of this would be solved by giving the right person lunchtime yard duty in the library - there are twice the number of staff there were last year, because two campuses are crammed into one now. Everyone making sympathetic noises, but nobody is handling it. :-(